Tuesday, December 2, 2014

"Langston Hughes and the Poetry of a Dream Legally Deferred," by Hans Ostrom

Law and Society Conference
Humboldt University, Berlin
July 2007

Hans Ostrom
University of Puget Sound

"Langston Hughes and the Poetry of a Dream Legally Deferred"

Assigned to Session: Race in Multi-Racial America 2432, July 26, 2:30-4:15; Law Faculty Building, Unter Den Linden, Room 139A.

Brief background: Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was a prolific African American writer and a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance (circa 1920-1930). He is best known now as a poet, more specifically as a “blues poet,” and especially for a few widely anthologized poems. However, Hughes was actually one of the most versatile American authors of the 20th century, publishing novels, short stories, essays, nonfiction books (including two autobiographies), libretti, plays, a screenplay, and so on.
Throughout his career, Hughes remained alert to chronic and acute political issues, including racism as manifested in lynching, Jim Crow Laws, and segregation, but also including international issues such as colonialism, specifically Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia and Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. For the Baltimore Afro American newspaper, Hughes covered the Spanish Civil War, and in the 1930s, he was greatly attracted to Marxist interpretations of social ills. He joined the John Reed Club, traveled to and wrote about Russia, and wrote many Marxist-influenced poems. One result of this activity was his being called before one of Joseph McCarthy’s committees, where Hughes read a statement about his own political views and answered questions but refused to talk about anyone else. His poem, “Un-American Investigators,” published in the 1960s, concerns this experience.

Focus of topic: This paper focuses on Hughes’s virtually unique capacity as a poet not merely to address broadly defined political and social questions but to represent in poetry highly specific political, social, and legal issues—even specific legal cases. Literary historians, critics, and theorists have long debated the extent to which literary writers may, can, and should be “political.” Some scholars almost reflexively argue that political literature equals propagandistic literature; others argue that all literature is political, just as “the personal” is “the political”; and many take positions somewhere between these extremes.

Thesis: My thesis here is that Hughes moved well beyond such basic questions as whether political literature was propagandistic literature and decided early on that to be a citizen-poet well versed (pun intended) in politics was the right thing for him to do. He was comfortable producing literary works (not just journalism or opinion pieces) about specific political and legal questions. Further, I suggest that Hughes’s work provides a distinctive, if not unique, nexus at which literary critics, political scientists, and political theorists might converge, but that as we consider or approach this nexus, we will perceive some complicated and complicating questions.

Two of Hughes’s most famous poems confront race in broad terms. One is “Theme for English B,” which deliberately complicates the relationship between and African American student and a white teacher, unveiling numerous hidden power-relationships, among other things. “Harlem” asks the famous question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” That is, what happens when a whole people, namely African Americans, are suppressed in the political process and oppressed economically? He goes on to speculate: “Does it [the dream] dry up/like a raisin in the sun?”—thereby providing the title for Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play, Raisin in the Sun. Hughes also asks, “Or does it explode?”—thereby prefiguring the “race riots” of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1990s in the U.S. In any event, these poems take a broad view; they are memorable works that deserve anthologizing, but they do not represent Hughes’s more specifically attentive approach to politics. Let me now discuss poems that fit into the latter category. (All of these poems may be found in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (CP), edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel (New York: Knopf, 1994); however, the definitive edition of Hughes’s poetry and the rest of his oeuvre is now considered to be the complete works published by the University of Missouri Press.).

“The Mitchell Case” (pp. 568-69 of CP) concerns the case, Mitchell v. United States, et al. The first African American member of the Democratic Party elected to the U.S. Congress (representing a district in Illinois), Arthur Weigs Mitchell traveled by train in 1937 from Chicago to Arkansas. Because of Jim Crow Laws, he was forced to move from first-class accommodations to a segregated car. He sued a variety of officials connected to the Chicago Rock Island and Pacific Railway Company, the Illinois Central Railway Company, and the Pullman Company. (The latter respondent in the suit is a bit ironic because the Pullman Company employed so many African Americans and was also a strongly unionized company, something Hughes appreciated.) Mitchell lost in the lower courts but prevailed at the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Charles Hughes wrote the majority opinion in 313 U.S. 80, No. 577. In the poem Hughes lauds the decision but notes that very few African Americans have the means to sue and to file appeals. In 1941, when he wrote the poem, Hughes therefore saw the case as a good one as far as it went, but he saw the need for a much more widespread approach to desegregation. A further irony is that Mitchell had defended President Roosevelt’s appointment of Hugo F. Black, who had once belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. Mitchell’s defense was based on pragmatic grounds; he believed Black “is a good man and a true liberal. His Klan membership was a mistake which was rectified” (as quoted in the Baltimore Afro American, October 16, 1937), page one. Hughes also wrote about Angelo Herndon, who case Herndon v. Lowry, was heard by the Supreme Court 301 U.S. 342 (1937). See Works Cited below. I will provide a copy of the poem for those attending the panel.

“Restrictive Covenants” (CP 361), published in 1949, specifically addressed neighborhood covenants that prevented African Americans from renting or buying homes in certain areas, especially in the North, where Jim Crow Laws were supposed not to exist. Related poems are “Little Song on Housing” and “Slum Dreams.”

“Governor Fires Dean (CP 572). As I mention in my book, A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia (2002), the poem “reacts to Georgia Governor Eugen Talmadge’s dismissal in 1942 of a Georgia educator, Walter Cocking (a professor at the University of Georgia), who headed a group that advocated training rural teachers in a racially integrated setting” (147). In response to Tallmadge’s action, the president of the University resigned, and the Board of Regents overturned the decision. Tallmadge fired Cocking again.
In response to the infamous arrest and trials of the Scottsboro Boys (1931-1933), Hughes wrote the poem “Scottsboro” and the play, Scottsboro Limited. In the poem (CP 142), Hughes seizes on the seven young men as symbolic figures, referring in the poem to Christ, John Brown, Moses, Nat Turner, Joan of Arc, and Gandhi. To Hughes, obviously, the Scottsboro trials represented (or should represent) a kind of political and legal earthquake, one effect of which should be to force Americans to re-examine not just the legal system but also deeply held, reflexive attitudes toward Black men, white women, and sexual stereotypes connected to race. Ironically, when Hughes visited the boys when they were incarcerated, but they seemed mostly confused by his visit. Please see political scientist’s William Haltom’s article, “The Scottsboro Boys” in A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia (344-45). Haltom notes that “[t]he Supreme Court of the United States saved the seven from execution in the landmark case Powell v. Alabama (1932).” I will provide a copy of this poem to those attending the panel.

“Dear Mr. President” (CP, 271) is a poem written as a “letter” from a fictional African American soldier training in Alabama. The letter points out that while the soldier is, in 1943), preparing to serve in the armed forces and, probably, to fight against the army of racist Adolph Hitler, he must daily endure the consequences of Jim Crow Laws. Segregation in the armed forces was not ended until 1948, by Harry Truman. Almost a decade earlier, in 1934, Hughes had published “Ballad of Roosevelt,” in which Hughes depicts African Americans as “A-waitin’ on Roosevelt”—that is, awaiting relief from the Great Depression, relief that is already reaching white Americans. Hughes saw the New Deal as primarily a New Deal for white Americans. I will provide a copy of this poem to those attending the panel.

Hughes wrote many other poems in a similar vein: poems that take on specific legal, political, or social issues. Such poems offer several opportunities for political science and literary criticism to converge, opportunities I will phrase as questions:

1. How well did Hughes understand the issues involved? How sophisticated is his political analysis—particularly when it must fit into the compressed form of poetry?

2. Is poetry focused on specific political, legal, or social issues necessarily propaganda? Throughout the 1930s, Hughes wrote plainly Marxist influenced poetry that embraced the ideal of an international labor-revolution. “One More ‘S’ in the U.S.A.,” for example, obviously suggests that, politically, the U.S. would do well to be more lie the U.S.S.R. (Hughes ultimately changed his view of the U.S.S.R, and especially of Stalin, and he eventually supported U.S. involvement in World War II, in part because of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia and Hitler’s racist stance. Hughes even wrote poems urging people to buy “war bonds.”) Such poems are easy targets for the charge that they are propaganda, not literature, and the tendency has been for readers of Hughes to proceed to lump all his political poetry into this category. A more fair and more productive approach might be to view Hughes as a writer who, almost from the beginning, was politically alert, who went through many political phases (the attraction to Marxism being one), but who wrote many political poems that aren’t necessarily propaganda.

3. The question(s) of audience(s). To whom and for whom did Hughes write these poems? Some appeared in African American newspapers and were obviously directed primarily at a black audience that did not necessarily read a great deal of literature. But Hughes later published the poems in books that would be read by a multiracial literary audience. Obviously, many of the poems would appeal to “white liberals,” of whom Hughes could be suspicious—whites who opposed segregation and embraced desegregation, for instance. How (if at all) might the poems be used not just in college literature classes but in college political science classes? To what extent might poems be used as data? We might note that in the poem regarding the Mitchell case, Hughes adopts a working-class, “folk” persona, concedes that Mitchell’s victory in the Supreme Court is a reason for at least a minor celebration, but then takes the firm position that, because so few African Americans can afford to pursue legal action, the Mitchell victory may be Pyrrhic.

4. The question of language/genre. Arguably, lyric poetry might be one of the least accommodating genres with regard to specific issues of politics, society, and law. It is a highly compressed form, and as Hughes deployed it, it often required adherence to schemes of meter and rhyme. Poetry often works by means of suggestion, deliberate ambiguity, metaphor, and analogy—language that might, at first glance, certainly—seem to locate itself at some distance from the language of social science. However, by the same token, might lyric poetry on specific issues in some cases compress arguments in ways that might be useful to students and at least interesting (as novelties, if nothing else) to political scientists?

5. Contemporary interfaces of poetry and politics and intersectionality. To what extent do contemporary poets address specific political issues? For example, how specific is current anti-war (or pro-war) poetry? Does it take on specific questions, such as the evidence (or lack thereof) of weapons of mass destruction? To what extent do some Hip Hop lyrics take on specific questions of law, society, and race?

Certainly, Hughes’s political poetry adds to the cultural record of political, social, and legal transition—in the U.S. with regard to race but also globally with regard to socialism and capitalism, colonialism and post-colonialism, and Negritude and the African Diaspora. More than that, however, it implicitly argues for the presence of “the citizen poet,” who not only takes political stances but studies specific issues and, most importantly, lets his or her art direct itself to such issues. Such poetry also places itself—for better or worse—in the sphere of political scientists, who will probably have to take a counterintuitive attitude if and when they decide to perceive such “political poetry” of “a dream deferred” as worthy of study, as data. Similarly, literary critics, even those informed by such politically oriented theoretical positions as Marxist, feminist, or critical-race theory, may have to overcome conventional notions of propaganda “versus” art when they interpret poems such as those mentioned here—poems that recall, mark, and document legal questions in a society; poems that deliberately enter a political sphere. Ironically, such critics may have to turn their gaze from contemporary and modern poetry sometimes and look at examples of political poets from ancient Persia, Greek, and Rome, and from Europe in the medieval period through the Romantic period.

Works Cited
William Haltom, “Herndon v. Lowry” and “Scottsboro Boys, The,” in A
Langston Hughes Encyclopedia (2002), 159-160; 343-345;

Hans Ostrom, A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002).
Sole author except for @ 8 entries. See such entries as “Jim Crow Laws,”
which contains a checklist of numerous works by Hughes linked to Jim Crow Laws;
Marxism; Poetics; Politics; Roosevelt, Franklin Delano.

Rampersad, Arnold and David Roessel, eds. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes
(New York: Knopf, 1994). One volume, 708 pages.

Copyright 2007/2014 Hans Ostrom

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